As the last Russian Premier League season ran over 18 months and barely afforded the players a summer break, there will be few players complaining of the three months they will now enjoy off over the winter period. Play resumes again in mid-March after the calendar was altered to account for Russia’s bleak winters, but not before a handful of games had already been played on frozen pitches and in snow-covered stadia. For the leading trio of CSKA, Anzhi and Zenit there is a chance to add to their squads for one last title push, whilst for the likes of Mordovia and Alania, struggling at the foot of the table, the winter break gives an ideal opportunity to regroup and try to salvage their top flight status.
The break will also be of great relief to a couple of the league’s higher profile managers. Slaven Bilic at Lokomotiv has come under fire recently for his side’s under-performance – his predecessor Jose Couceiro was allowed to run down his contract after finishing 7th, one place higher than Bilic’s current squad – whilst Valeri Karpin, the ‘reluctant’ manager of city rivals Spartak, has confirmed that he will remain in the dugout until the end of the season after the dismissal of Unai Emery. With fans expecting a title challenge dismayed by their current 6th place and dismal European campaign, Karpin has work to do over the break.
Lower still down the table, and there are two teams in particular who need to maximise the potential offered by the long hibernation period. Krylya Sovetov, the Premier League stalwarts who have slipped slowly down the standings over recent years, find themselves mired in a fight to avoid the relegation play-off spot which they currently occupy. November saw manager Andrei Kobelev resign for the good of the team, and no formal replacement has been announced. Bottom side Mordovia Saransk find themselves in a similar position having dismissed the man who took them to the top flight for the first time in their history – Fedor Shcherbachenko – and appointed only a caretaker in his place.
However, whilst a large number of clubs will be fretting over the winter holiday, one club which would probably have been happy to play through the harsh weather is Dinamo Moscow. Five games into the new season, after netting just a single league goal and suffering defeat in every match, Sergei Silkin stepped down to be replaced by Dan Petrescu, the former Kuban boss with a growing reputation in Russia and abroad after keeping the Krasnodar club in the top flight and taking unfancied Unirea Urziceni to the Romanian title and Champions League group stage, where they finished a respectable 3rd. That the club dissolved after his departure due to horrific mismanagement by his replacements merely amplifies his Petrescu’s achievements.
Petrescu took the reins at Dinamo with the club facing a dire situation, staring down the barrel of a relegation fight unthinkable for one of Russia’s biggest sides, even if they haven’t lifted the title in recent memory. The start was slow, the odd victory coupled by previously unexpected defeats, but at the end of September the club began to turn a corner. Helped in part by Alan Dzagoev’s red card assault on Luke Wilkshire, Dinamo beat rivals CSKA 2-0 in the nominal ‘away’ fixture between the two ground-sharing sides, and the relief looked tangible.
Since the win over CSKA, Petrescu and his staff has launched what has the potential to be one of the finer rescue acts the Russian league has seen. Following on from the win at Arena Khimki, Dinamo have lost just two of the nine league games which followed, Anzhi and Krasnodar the only teams to fend off the resurgent club. In addition to making progress in the cup by beating First Division side Khimki, Dinamo have won all seven of the other games they have played in that time. Most recently, a 5-1 away demolition of Spartak which cost Unai Emery his job, a 3-0 win over notoriously tough to beat Rubin and a 2-1 victory at high-flying Terek have impressed the fans, whilst the 3-0 default win awarded over Zenit after the flare-throwing incident has only aided their cause.
With that kind of momentum – five straight wins in the league – Dinamo may be the only side in the league that will be disappointed to see the fixtures take an extended break. With Petrescu at the helm, the club’s younger players have come to the fore, with the likes of Nikita Chicherin, Ivan Solovyev and new Austrain signing Jakob Jantscher all playing their part in the team’s resurgence. Although an incident earlier in the season, which saw players paintballed by angry fans, has led to rumours of departure for the likes of Christian Noboa, there is a growing sense that Dinamo have regained the strength previously associated with the famous club.
As things stand, there is every chance that the revival could continue on into a genuine push for European football. Sitting 13 points behind CSKA with 11 games to go, a title challenge still verges on the impossible, but despite losing their first five games of the season, Dinamo’s fightback has given them hope. This season’s Europa League campaign ended in the qualifying rounds against Stuttgart, but with early surprise packages Kuban and Terek beginning to slip off the pace and the likes of Spartak and Lokomotiv struggling for form, Dinamo suddenly find themselves just two points behind Petrescu’s old club in 4th. Five places may separate the sides in the table, but with less than one win’s difference between them and all the momentum they could need – not to mention the in-form strike pairing of Russia’s bright young talent Alexander Kokorin and German veteran Kevin Kuranyi – some are even beginning to view Dinamo as favourites to follow the leading trio into Europe.
Of course, a great deal can change over the course of 11 matches, and Dinamo’s own decisive nature – they are the only professional side in Russia yet to draw a league game – will undoubtedly allow for plenty of sudden changes to the standings in an unusually tight midtable. However, as their rivals struggle for form and fight amongst themselves, Dinamo have emerged as the unlikely club to possess something resembling stability, good form and momentum. If Dan Petrescu were to lead his once-ailing side into Europe, it would only boost his already impressive reputation. The Dinamo fans will be hoping he does just that.